What Is An MVNO? Mobile Virtual Network Operators Compared!

What Is An MVNO? Mobile Virtual Network Operators Compared!

You’re probably familiar with Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. These are the four major wireless carriers in the United States. However, there are dozens of smaller wireless carriers that piggyback off of the major carriers’ networks in order to provide cellular service. These carriers are known as MVNOs, and in this article I’ll explain what they are and how switching to one could benefit you!

What Is An MVNO?

An MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, is a wireless carrier that doesn’t own the technology it uses to provide coverage to its customers. Typically, an MVNO will lease access to cell towers from one or more of the major wireless carriers.

What Are The Benefits Of An MVNO?

Years ago, I signed up for my first “real” cell phone plan, long before I knew anything about MVNOs or cell towers. It was a Virgin Mobile plan. With that plan, I got 300 minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited data. It only cost $25 a month!

Unfortunately, that plan no longer exists, but it does highlight one of the potential advantages of choosing an MVNO as your wireless carrier. Although they lease access to cell towers from major carriers, mobile virtual network operators are essentially free to offer whatever plans they want at whatever prices they want.

Sometimes this means you can sign up for a great cell phone plan with no long-term contract at a cheaper price than you’d get with a major wireless carrier.

Do MVNO Data Plans Get Deprioritized?

One common concern people have about signing up for a cell phone plan with an MVNO is whether or not their data speeds will get deprioritized. After all, a major carrier owns the cell towers that provide service, couldn’t they deprioritize MVNO customers in favor of their own?

In some cases, MVNO users may find their data speeds deprioritized. In fact, some wireless carriers prioritize some of their own customers over others!

Cell towers can only handle so much traffic, and the carrier that owns the cell tower can distinguish which phones are connecting directly and which phones are connecting through an MVNO. If you’re in a busy urban area like New York City where tons of people are all trying to connect to a cell tower at the same time, your data may be deprioritized regardless of your wireless carrier.

You May Already Have A Contract With An MVNO!

If you’re wireless carrier isn’t Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or US Cellular, odds are your wireless carrier is an MVNO. Straight Talk, Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, and Virgin Mobile are all very popular mobile virtual network operators. Each of these carriers have millions of subscribers!

How Do I Sign Up For A Plan With An MVNO?

Check out our tool to compare cell phone plans offered by dozens of different MVNOs. You can compare plans side-by-side to see how MVNOs stack up against the big four! Just use the Carrier filter to sort by plans from different MVNOs. Below, we'll discuss a few of our favorite cell phone plans offered by mobile virtual network operators.

Tello Mobile 2 GB Prepaid Plan

The Tello Mobile Value Plan is great for users wanting high-quality wireless service at a cheap price. You’ll enjoy unlimited minutes, unlimited messages, and 2 GB of high-speed data for only $14 / month. The plan renews automatically each month and any data you don't use rolls over. You’re also able to purchase additional monthly data as needed.

Although this plan has a low 4G LTE data allotment, you can continue using unlimited 2G data after you've gone through your high-speed data. Tello also gives you the option to bring your own phone with you when you switch!

Mint Mobile 10 GB Prepaid Plan

Mint Mobile’s 10 GB Prepaid Plan is ideal for those who only want to pay for what they need. For $20 / month, this plan features unlimited calling and texting with 10 GB of high-speed data. You can access 4G and 5G networks, and your phone will automatically connect to whichever is faster. When you’ve used the 10 GB of monthly data, your data speeds will be throttled until the following month.

This plan also includes international calling to Mexico and Canada, mobile hotspot, and access to T-Mobile's 5G network. You have the option to bring your own phone, but Mint Mobile has an impressive catalog of phones for a mobile virtual network operator.

TextNow Unlimited

TextNow's Unlimited Plan is great option for those who want unlimited data, but don't want to pay a premium price to get it. For $39.99 / month, this plan includes unlimited minutes, messages, and data. The high-speed data cap is 23 GB, the industry standard for a lower-end unlimited plan. Even if you reach that cap, you can continue using cellular data at reduced speeds.

This mobile virtual network operator leases coverage from T-Mobile and Sprint, so customers shouldn't be affected by the merger. This also means you'll have access to a wide 5G network!

MVNOs Explained!

I hope this article helped you understand what an MVNO is and how they differ from the four major wireless carriers. If you have any other questions about your cell phone plan or wireless carrier, don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below!


David Lynch

David Lynch is an expert on cell phones, cell phone plans, and other tech. After using a flip phone into his early 20s, he learned the ropes about iPhones and Androids from a former Apple employee. Today, his articles and videos are read and viewed by millions, and he has been cited by major publications including Reader's Digest, Wired, CMSWire, Consumers Advocate, and more.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Stay up to date on the latest phones, plans, and deals with our once-a-week digest.